I’ve done a lot of contemplating and research on this particular post – starting in Afghanistan – I’ve written and erased and rewritten ”several” times; suffice it to say, my approach and conclusion from what I was first going to write have completely changed. Initially, I looked at the question whether or not loneliness was a choice. But that was the wrong question, the wrong approach. I have come to believe that loneliness is no more a choice than a sunburn is when out in the sun for too long. It’s an effect…as is the combination of the sun and lack of sunscreen. Let me explain.
Loneliness sucks. It’s a black, empty void, and a longing for love and attention and community and otherness whose absence glares and taunts us to a point of near torture. I know we’ve all felt the pang of loneliness, and I simply don’t believe someone who tells me they’ve never been lonely. People will do anything to stop being lonely – I know, I’ve been one of them and I’m not proud of the levels to which I’ve stooped, and the morals I’ve sacrificed for even a few moments of feeling less lonely. It’s like what they say about people with motorcycles…there are those who have fallen, and those who have yet to fall. So it is with loneliness…but maybe after a closer look at it, our “fall” won’t have to be so hard.
After months of research on the topic, the most helpful explanation of loneliness was in a TED lecture on Youtube. In his talk “The lethality of loneliness,” (from where the two images on the right were taken) John Cacioppo looks at loneliness as any other physical response and early warning system our bodies enact when some sort of adjustment is required. Our bodies feel thirst when it needs more hydration; we feel hunger when our bodies need nourishment; we feel pain when we need to protect and heal our bodies. In the same way, we feel loneliness when our lives need a social adjustment. It’s a physical response to let us know that we’re lacking something – in this case it is more community and less isolation.
We are a social species and isolation is like a sickness to us – our bodies let us know when we’re reaching its limit through loneliness. In the same way babies die without human touch, we suffer and wither from isolation from others. Thus just like it would be ridiculous to ignore thirst and treat it like it doesn’t exist, so it is with turning a blind eye to loneliness. It’s real and is not something to get used to or ignore. Our bodies are warning us that we need an adjustment – we need to fix this state and put ourselves right again.
At any given point, 40% of people feel lonely…yet it remains a hush-hush topic of embarrassment that we think if we ignore will go away. Studies now show that loneliness can actually contribute to an earlier death. In other words, this embarrassing feeling is not to be swept under the carpet and treated like a nuisance that will fix itself. Our souls need – on a survival scale – to be social with other souls…preferably other nice, kind and funny souls. Being lonely is as normal as being thirsty – and should be treated as a sign or symptom and not a blemish. Just like the image says: recognize the symptom, understand why it’s there and what it means (aka this blog), and respond by reaching out to someone. Reaching out to just one person will help. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be a little more honest and responsive with this uncomfortable feeling? Maybe now we can pick up the damn phone and call a friend…oh yeah and Facebook doesn’t count!